Misanthropic Fields Forever

A delightful chat with the delightfully sardonic Stephin Merritt

Ethan Frome. Terrible book. You probably read it in high school. Edith Wharton's oh-so-bleak novella—set in Starkfield (how very unsubtle), Massachusetts— tells the tale of its doomed titular "hero," who, in an effort to "do the right thing," marries Zeena, the woman who nursed his mother on her deathbed. But after he's married, Ethan falls in love with Zeena's cousin, Mattie. And after considerable trials and tribulations (including a broken pickle dish), the pair ultimately realize they can never experience love as it is truly meant to be. So they decide to end it all—by riding their sleigh (how very New England) into a sturdy elm.

Except they don't die. Ethan is now crippled, and his beloved Mattie an invalid, so they are forced to live on the graces of Zeena, princess shrew. Which, really, is the icing on the cake of torment they'll be eating for the remainder of their miserable, miserable lives.

Terrible, terrible book. You might've read it in school, though certainly not after. Because no one—no one—would read Ethan Frome if he or she didn't have to. Except for Stephin Merritt, principle figure of Magnetic Fields and at least three other indie-pop bands in various stages of undeadness.

He's a fun-loving guy, honest
Marcelo Krasilcic
He's a fun-loving guy, honest

"I used to read it every year on my birthday," says Merritt. "It's 99 pages long. Perfect for birthday reading."

Ethan Frome.

On his birthday.

Every year.

"As setting, it can't be beat," Merritt continues. "It expresses everything about how horrible New England is."

I attempt to protest, because too much here is truly not enough. For the moral of Ethan Frome instructs that if you yearn for more—if you reach, as it were, for love, fulfillment, a better life—you will end up maimed and crippled (quite literally, if you own a sleigh) for the rest of your life.

"Yeah," Merritt says, near-radiant with self-loathing, near-giddy with misanthropic glee. "For the rest of your life."

Like a dowager's perfume, the reputation of Stephin Merritt as interview subject precedes him. It has been suggested—in print and by more than one regretful questioner—that the "diminutive, gay, and painfully intellectual" Merritt is "rude," "grouchy," "depressed," "prickly," and/or "nasty." At least two critics— Chicago writer Jessica Hopper and The New Yorker's own Sasha Frere-Jones —have insinuated, if not outright declared, that Merritt has more than one racist bone in his body, based primarily on his lack of praise for black artists in magazine articles. (Frere-Jones, actually, settled for "cracker.") Their assertions easily won the 2006 award for Most Insular Rock-Critic Pissing Contest, and Merritt, who declined all comment at the time, is naturally loath to revisit the topic now.

"Is the racist thing over?" I ask. "Done? Finished?"

"Overdone? It's certainly overdone," he replies, and grins a grinchy grin.

And yet Merritt is nearly as acclaimed for his songwriting acumen as condemned for his asocial demeanor; one Seattle critic recommended the now bicoastal melodist be given the MacArthur Fellowship (a/k/a "Genius Grant"), so great and prodigious is his songwriting skill. "Well, it's no good saying it in print," Merritt deadpans.

Yes, "deadpans." Let it be known that "says" just doesn't do the trick here. During an hour's conversation over a croissant and green tea, Merritt occasionally "intones." On a few rare occasions, he "asks." But my God in heaven, the man's deadpan skills are consummate—raising an eyebrow, looking askance, adopting a skeptical (if not outright suspicious) glare, and such. For instance, when I ask if a comfortable setting is necessary for good songwriting, Merritt volleys: "Are you making a pun?"(No, I was not.) I would no more antagonize a potentially churlish pop star than, say, taunt a Siberian tiger at the San Francisco Zoo. A moment of unease crawls across our table like a wandering waterbug. "A little awkwardness and discomfort is probably preferable," he says, a response that seems to cover more than one question.

"I like to think that I don't need inspiration," he continues. "That what I need is time, which is difficult to come by, and a little notebook, a pen, and some suitable background music to blot out the music that is inevitably in my head or already around me. Like these fucking Christmas songs that they're playing at Le Pain Quotidien, so annoyingly low you can't quite tell what they are." In case you missed it (like more than one regretful interviewer prior), somewhere inside Merritt's luxurious self-loathing and misanthropic glee is one bone-dry sense of humor. Which is just one of the reasons his songs are so appreciated.

Yes, Merritt's musical confections are rapturously revered. And conventional wisdom posits 69 Love Songs, Magnetic Fields' attention-grabbing, critically adored, awesomely ambitious and multi-genred 1999 three-disc set, as his masterpiece. (Fear not: Acerbic, animalistic allegories like "Boa Constrictor," "A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off," and "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits" guard well against any assumptions of sentimentality brought on by the album's appellation.) But even before that, Merritt wrote lyrics like, "I have a mandolin/I play it all night long/It makes me want to kill myself."

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